It’s been ten years since the last Men in Black movie, long enough for many to ask “Why now?” However, if a third film in the series gets the elements right, and presents an enjoyable experience, then maybe we should ask “Why not?” Helpfully, Men in Black 3 does those things for the most part, even if it’s not a triumphant return to form for the franchise.
A lot of time has passed in the MIB world as well. We’re frequently reminded that Agent J (Will Smith) has been policing alien activity on Earth for 14 years now, though he often looks and acts like he’s still a rookie. His partner, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), is crusty and closed-mouthed as ever, and seems to become even more so when news reaches them that a dangerous assassin named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) has escaped from prison after being locked up for more than 40 years.
K arrested Boris way back in 1969, and during the capture shot off the alien’s arm, an act Boris is eager to avenge. He plans to travel back in time, murder K, and retrieve a special device capable of protecting the Earth from an invasion by Boris’ alien compatriots. When K suddenly disappears and spaceships begin tearing up the city, it seems he’s succeeded.
J, however, in one of those time travel loopholes that scriptwriters never think very hard about, still remembers everything, and before long he jumps back himself, teaming up with the younger K (Josh Brolin) to stop Boris and save the planet.
Despite the convoluted plot, the script by Etan Cohen does a good job of telling the main story, and even manages to make the proceedings sweetly philosophical, particularly when the agents meet Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg, very good), a pan-dimensional alien who can see all possible futures at once. Emotional resonance in a summer sci-fi blockbuster is a rare thing, and this movie has a lot of it.
The first act drags, though. The opening scenes of J and K rousting the alien scum of New York City have too much of a been-there-done-that feel to them. A second sequel such as this should subvert expectations, and if not, there should at least be some wild comedy or action to keep us interested. Not much of either really happens here.
The movie comes alive when Brolin appears onscreen. It’s essentially an extended Tommy Lee Jones impression, but it’s a very good one. Too often, time travel stories rely on our imagination to fit obviously different younger and older actors together as the same character. This performance is seamless enough to make us believe they are one and the same.
Of the other actors, it can at least be said that they’re trying. Smith continues to be a bankable lead, even if his energetic personality seems to be waning with age. Jones does what he does best, but is underserved by a script and story that treats the older K like a bookend. Clement struggles behind an overly large set of prosthetic teeth that lets him do little more than snarl, but he’s still menacing.
It’s a bit undercooked, but Men in Black 3 is worth seeing if you like the genre.
(PS: I should mention that, slapstick comedy and neat little ray guns aside, this movie is not recommended for young children, being more violent and profane than you might expect. Boris has a nasty little companion living inside his hand that will likely be quite scary to kids and arachnophobes.)
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